A Washington state senator under investigation for alleged workplace misconduct involving his former legislative assistant acknowledged Tuesday that he had a "brief relationship" with the woman before he hired her in 2009.
"For approximately six weeks during November and December 2008, I had a brief relationship with Ann Larsen [sic]," Sen. Kevin Ranker, an Orcas Island Democrat, wrote in an email. "I exercised extremely poor judgment, recognized my mistake and ultimately reconciled with my wife."
At the time of the relationship, Ranker was a San Juan County Commissioner and Larson was clerk to the commission. Ranker was first elected to the Senate in November 2008 and took office that January. He hired Larson as his legislative assistant in the spring of 2009.
During the 2010 legislative session, Larson alleges Ranker subjected her to a "verbally abusive and hostile work environment" while she worked for him in Olympia. She also now alleges that he sexually harassed her, though she didn't characterize it as such at the time. After she reported his conduct, Larson said Ranker retaliated against her.
Larson's allegations are now being investigated by a lawyer hired by the state Senate. Ranker denies any wrongdoing and said he expects to "be exonerated from these allegations."
Larson, who is currently the director of government relations for the Washington state Department of Enterprise Services, also confirmed the prior relationship with Ranker, though she said it happened earlier in the fall of 2008.
Once Ranker took office as a state senator, Larson said he tried to recruit her to work for him as his legislative assistant, saying this could open doors for her career-wise. Larson said initially wasn't interested, but eventually decided to accept his offer.
Larson provided the Northwest News Network with an email Ranker sent her in February 2009 with the subject line "job." The email asked, "You still interested? While I will not make any changes until the end of session, I am now actively looking."
According to Ranker, it was Larson who approached him about working in Olympia. He said Larson told him that "San Juan Island was too small" and that she needed to "get off the rock" to advance her career.
"I did not want to hold our relationship against her and I knew her to be competent in her work," Ranker wrote in an email explaining why he hired Larson as his legislative assistant. Ranker said the relationship from that point forward was "entirely professional."
For the remainder of 2009, which was during the legislative interim, Larson said she opened and then staffed Ranker's district office in Anacortes. In January 2010, she temporarily relocated to Olympia to work in Ranker's Capitol office during the legislative session. It was during this period of time that she alleges he began to act inappropriately.
"Rubbing my shoulders, offering alcohol, asking me to stay late, those types of things," Larson said.
Larson told the Northwest News Network that Ranker's behavior began as "friendly flirtation," but over time got more aggressive. "He's pushing boundaries, I'm protesting, I'm protesting more," Larson said.
Ranker, in an email Tuesday, denied Larson's allegations. "I never sexually harassed her," Ranker said. "These are ludicrous claims with completely no basis in fact."
Larson said after she rebuffed Ranker several times, he began to become hostile towards her.
"It starts to be, 'Why aren't you here on time, this is part of your job, you need to stay late, I need you for this,'" Larson said. "And it's no longer rubbing my shoulders, offering me wine."
According to Larson, she first reported the inappropriate behavior to the Senate at the end of February 2010. She said that a pair of Senate staffers took her to lunch to interview her about the issues she was having in Ranker's office. Larson acknowledges that at the time she did not accuse Ranker of sexual harassment.
"I think I articulated that it was a hostile work environment, but I did not specify that this was sexual harassment," Larson said.
In response, Larson said Senate staff offered to help her find a job outside of the Legislature, but did not launch a formal investigation.
Larson also said she believed Senate staff spoke with Ranker about the situation. The Northwest News Network could not independently confirm this.
Soon after meeting with Senate staff, Larson took a job as a legislative affairs director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Larson had a background as a fisheries biologist and had done research on the Southern Resident orca whale population. The new job meant a big boost in salary. Larson said she went from making $48,000 a year working as a legislative assistant to $80,000 a year at Fish and Wildlife.
In that new role, Larson said she had to interact with Ranker because he chaired the Senate Natural Resources and Marine Waters Committee. Larson said she faced retaliation from Ranker for having made allegations against him.
"At first, it's like he's blackballing me from his office, like not allowing me to see him," Larson said. "He's also yelling at me in the hallways."
Asked by the Northwest News Network if he retaliated or created a hostile work environment, Ranker responded in an email: "Retaliate to what? I never harassed her. Period."
Former Fish and Wildlife director Phil Anderson said that he was aware at the time that Larson was having difficulties with Ranker. "I did know that and we talked about how to manage that."
Reached Tuesday, another former legislative assistant who worked for Ranker between 2011 and 2015 said it was clear to her that Ranker and Larson had "previous personal drama." Kendall Farley said her impression was that Ranker harbored some resentment toward Larson because she left his office in the middle of a protracted 2010 legislative session that spawned two special sessions.
"It would seem to me that he would constantly have his drama with her, but at the end of the day it always seemed like they had some sort of friendship or history that would supersede that," Farley said.
Farley described Ranker as "emotionally reactive" and said sometimes he'd get angry with a lobbyist and decide not to meet with them for a day or two. Farley said that could have happened with Larson from time to time. But she didn't see evidence that Larson was "blackballed" by Ranker while lobbying for Fish and Wildlife.
"She had so much access," Farley said. "They were often in contact."
Farley added that working for Ranker could be difficult, describing the experience as an "emotional rollercoaster." But she also described him as respectful and said there was a "warm, loving heart thing about him." She said, overall, her experience working for Ranker was a positive one.
Earlier this fall, Larson decided to go public with her allegations against Ranker. As a courtesy, she said she alerted Governor Jay Inslee's office because she's a legislative liasion for a state agency. The governor's office, in turn, notified the state Senate. In October, the Senate hired an outside lawyer to conduct an investigation into Ranker. Secretary of the Senate Brad Hendrickson said Tuesday he hopes the investigation is completed by the first half of January.
The investigator is Tara Parker of the Ogden, Murphy, Wallace law firm in Seattle. Farley, Ranker's former legislative assistant, said she has not been contacted by Parker.
In an earlier statement, Ranker said he supports the investigation and is fully cooperating. "Regardless of the accuser or the accused, I strongly believe that matters such as these must be taken very seriously and fully investigated," Ranker said.
But in his statement Tuesday, Ranker accused Larson of refusing to meet with the Senate investigator for three weeks and seeking out media coverage. "Instead of allowing these serious claims to be considered objectively, we now seem to be giving way to the politics of personal destruction where we subvert due process," Ranker said.
In response, Larson said she spent one week considering whether to participate in the investigation. After that, Larson said she cooperated while planning her recent wedding in Hawaii.
The 2019 legislative session begins on January 14. Senate Democrats recently selected Ranker to chair the newly-created Environment and Tourism Committee, which will play a key role in orca recovery efforts. Currently, Ranker chairs the Senate's Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee.